There is a passage of Scripture that is a bit puzzling. It is one that I have been thinking about a lot lately. "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Colossians 1:24).
What does Paul mean by him filling up that which is missing in the sufferings of Christ? Surely Christ’s sufferings, which were completed by His death on the Cross for our sins, were complete in and of themselves. How can any of us say that those sufferings were, in some way, lacking? What was left out? What was missing? What was needed? The more that I think about it, the more I come to focus not on something that Christ did not do or suffer but rather the ongoing sense of Christ present in this world, in this age, in His body. I think Paul is pointing to this when he writes in the passage above, “I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church…”
In other words, the sufferings of Christ that are missing are those sufferings that He has not yet experienced through His church here on earth. These sufferings are those that are being experienced and will be experienced by His people in this life. These are the sufferings that are lacking—those that have not yet happened. As we are called to identify with Jesus Christ, we are called to identify with His sufferings. We do that by suffering ourselves for the sake of His Gospel.
Even a quick reading of the New Testament will show that the follower of Jesus Christ should expect to suffer in this life. Of course, we gratefully receive from Him all that He wants to pour out on us of blessing and provision; but, we also see that, even as we receive His love and experience great joy in Him, it is our expected lot to suffer for His sake and the sake of the Gospel.
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps… (1Peter 2:21)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. (1 Peter 5:8-9)
It is not only Peter who writes in this vein. Hear the words of our Lord.
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.” (Luke 21:12-13)
“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:18-20)
How about what we read further in the letters of Paul?
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I
consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:16-18)
For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake… (Philippians 1:29)
But enough of quoting scripture… Why am I bringing all of this up now?
As I write these words a man, a personal friend, a Canadian, sits in prison in China accused of espionage. He has been there for over two years now—accused without trial. The real reason is because of his witness for the Gospel and his love for North Korea. Another Canadian, pastor of a large Korean church in Canada, has been in prison in North Korea since February 2015. Another pastor, a U.S. citizen, has been suffering in prison in North Korea for a year. We also know of three South Korean pastors serving prison sentences in North Korea at this time. In almost all cases, those in prison are being held as spies for the United States or for South Korea. Their real crimes? Holding forth the love and Gospel of Jesus Christ.
How are we to think of these men? How are we to think of the 23 Korean missionaries who were captured in Afghanistan in 2007 and their leader who was martyred? What about the Korean-Chinese pastor in Changbai, Jilin Province, China who was murdered by North Korean agents in April of this year because of his pastoral care for North Korean defectors?
The passages above tell us that we should expect this. We, as Christians are not to be shocked, much less, blame them for putting themselves in the place where they can be harmed. Rather, perhaps we should wonder why something similar has not happened to us.
Our forefathers in the Faith considered that suffering for Christ was to be expected. They constantly taught believers to expect persecution, suffering and even death for the sake of the Gospel. I recently heard an interview with an Egyptian Coptic Christian, a young woman, who spoke about how much her faith had been strengthened by the martyrdom of the 21 Christian men executed by ISIS in Libya in 2015. She said that she had been raised on stories of the martyrs of the early Church but this brought it home in a new way. What a glorious thing it was to be living in the age of martyrs!
Jesus was very clear as well as to how we who are not suffering are to act towards those who are—pray for them, visit them in prison, care for them, love them, encourage them. (See Matthew 25:31-46)
Truly, we do live in the age of martyrs. Our brothers and sisters are suffering for the Name of Jesus Christ throughout the Middle East, in China and in North Korea. More and more, we also begin to experience discrimination and persecution in Europe, North America and, yes, even in South Korea. We can deplore these things. We can seek to avoid them. We can think of what our brothers and sisters should have done to avoid capture, persecution and death. We can protest. Or… we can do as Jesus Christ and the Apostles exhorted us to do—rejoice! We can rejoice for those who suffer and we can rejoice when we suffer. We can thank God for their steadfast witness and pray Him to give them strength to resist the Devil, to continue in total reliance on Him. And we can, we should, pray for them to be protected in health of mind and body, to be encouraged and to be released from prison. For those whose release is into the arms of Christ, we can thank God that they now wear the Crown of Martyrdom and stand gazing into the glorious face of God. And, we pray for those who grieve, indeed, grieving with them.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:9-15)
Director, The Fourth River Project
The Three Seas Center, Taebaek, Kangwon Do